This week we are dropping Jake off at the University of Arkansas to begin his freshman year. He will be joining his sister Annie who will be a sophomore at the same university. It is a big week for our family as we adjust to having only our two younger children living at home while our two older children are away at college.
Launching two children in two years is not for the faint of heart. During Annie’s senior year, I learned a lot about having a senior, but her senior year took place during COVID which made for lots of unusual exceptions. When Jake was a senior the following year, things were back to normal and his experience was much more typical. Walking through two senior years taught me so much, and I took lots and lots of notes.
Today, I am sharing some of those notes with you. I learned most of what I am going to share with you in hindsight, and I wish I had known all of this long before the senior year began. With two children still waiting to launch (thankfully not for another four years), I am confident these notes will come in handy down the road. I hope they will serve you too.
Before I begin, I want to state a few obvious but necessary disclaimers as well as a bit of context. I am not a professional educator, accountant, financial advisor, or counselor. Also, neither of my children played sports in high school, and neither of them chose to participate in rush in college. If your child is pursuing college athletics or is interested in fraternities or sororities, I am fresh out of help in either of those departments.
Let’s dive in!
Your child is going to need a resume as they apply for scholarships and look for employment or internships. Resumes are the kind of document that can take way too long to put together if you wait until the last minute to begin. Plus it can be very difficult to recall all the past details of your child’s work history, volunteer opportunities, awards, honors, and extra-curricular activities.
In hind sight, I wish I had helped my children create a resume shell beginning in seventh grade. This way, whenever they participated in something, won something, or did anything of note, I could have added it in the moment and their resume would have written itself over time. As things become obsolete (seventh grade Student Council Treasurer probably isn’t going to matter their senior year), it is easy to delete older entries. But, with the structure in place, by the time they are a senior and need a resume, it will be ready and waiting for them.
My two cents? Take senior photos in early October of their senior year. Book the appointment in June or July so you can choose the date you want with your photographer.
Why October? First of all, the light in October is gorgeous. Second, in October the trees and shrubs still have leaves and the grass is green which makes for a beautiful natural setting. I made the mistake of waiting until spring to take Jake’s, and we had a hard time finding an outdoor backdrop with foliage. Third of all, and most importantly, you will begin to need their senior photos for different situations beginning in early spring. Take the photos in October while the light is beautiful, the trees have leaves, and then the images will be ready and waiting for you when you need them.
FAFSA stands for Free Application For Student Aid, and it is the universal form every student must fill out in order to qualify for any aid of any kind. Loans. Grants. Scholarships. All of them require FAFSA. If you plan to apply for any kind of aid, you will be required to fill out the FAFSA first.
I don’t know another way to say this, but FAFSA is not easy to fill out. I consider myself and my husband to be intelligent, educated people, and we both had trouble navigating the process. Do not underestimate the amount of time and energy the financial aid process will require of you, and keep in mind your student really cannot fill this form out on their own, despite what the website says. Make a point to familiarize yourself with the website early on, create your account, create your student’s account, and do not wait until the last minute to get this FAFSA process going. Which brings me to my next point…
The data you will enter on the FAFSA form comes from your personal tax return from the previous year. For example, when I filled out Jake’s FAFSA at the end of his senior year (2022), I had to access our 2021 tax return. It is vitally important that you file your income tax return on time. If you request an extension and file your taxes late, you might not be able to fill out the FAFSA because you might not have the information it requests, which means your child cannot apply for financial aid. Bottom line: The spring of senior year, make sure you file your taxes on time.
This next part is very important. Once you file your taxes, keep a printed hard copy of the return handy. When filling out FAFSA, you will have to enter numbers directly from your tax return. You will also have to enter your IRS login information so that the FAFSA people can verify your tax records. If you’re like me, I rarely access the IRS website, so I really don’t know my login. Spoiler alert: the government does not make it easy to recover usernames and passwords, and they require you to verify your identity along the way, which is a whole complicated process.
You know how no one really talks about how hard breastfeeding is when you’re about to have a baby? That’s how I feel about FAFSA. No one really talks about how hard and involved this process is, but I am here to tell you that you need to work ahead and allow time. And you need to make sure you file your taxes on time.
Graduation season is a blur, and if you plan to celebrate with a party or send invitations or announcements to friends and family, do yourself a favor and create your address list the summer after their junior year. Maybe you already keep an address list for Christmas cards (good job!), but if you don’t, now is the time to set that up. We keep our address list in a Google sheet that my husband and I share. It makes it easy to edit, update, and access addresses whenever we need them.
We waited way too long to visit college campuses with Annie. To be fair, her junior year and senior year were during COVID, but when she went for her first visit in the spring of her senior year, I felt silly for waiting as long as we did. Jake visited in the fall of his senior year, but if I had it to do over again, we would visit campuses during their junior year. Why? Because (as I will discuss below) their senior year does not offer a lot of extra time. Trust me on this. Senior year college visits are fine, but junior year would be better.
Scholarship applications are out there en masse, and there truly are so many resources available to help cover the cost of your child’s education. But that’s where the good news ends. Applying for scholarships is a doozy.
If your child is applying for multiple scholarships, I suggest viewing it as a part-time job. The process is endless, each application requiring different forms or pieces of information, and most of them requiring writing in the form of an essay or thoughtful answers to questions.
Many scholarships have due dates in the fall of senior year, which is why having your resume ready and college visits complete before the senior year helps pave the way to create time and space for the hours and hours it takes to apply for scholarships. I wish we had investigated this process earlier and set aside more time to give it the attention it deserves.
You know all those photos and certificates and pieces of art you’ve been saving for eighteen years? Senior year is when you will want and need to pull these items out. Whether it is a photo wall at their graduation reception, kindergarten photos for the school video, photos of when they were in little league for the team dinner, or any other number of opportunities to share memories, you will need to be able to access their childhood memorabilia.
In an ideal world, you would take time during their junior year to get the system in place so that you can just add to it their senior year while also easily accessing what you need. But at the very least, start thinking about where all of these photos are and how you can begin to organize them in a way that allows you to enjoy how far your child has come.
THE SPRING SEMESTER.
Listen. You are not going to believe me, but I am going to say it anyways. Schedule nothing (and I mean nothing) during the spring semester of senior year. Remember how busy May is at the end of every school year? Take that feeling and multiply it by fifty, spread it out over an entire semester, and that is what the spring of a senior year is like. It’s an entire semester of May.
There will be no less than four thousand senior events. Clap outs. Trips. Student Sunday. Senior dinner. Banquets. Awards. Tributes. The final campout. Final game. Party after the final game. Final concert. Final lunch. Party for the parents. Senior sunrise. Senior sunset. Senior sign day. Senior skip day. Plus, on top of all the events celebrating your senior, all of their graduating friends will also have events. It literally feels like it never ends.
Schedule nothing. Say no to every request for your time that is not absolutely mandatory. Do not chair a committee. Do not volunteer to be room mom for your another child. Do not sign up to work the booth or bring the snacks or drive the van. Say no to it all if you have a senior. Your calendar will explode in ways you cannot believe, and you will thank me later for insisting that you plan nothing during the spring semester of a senior year.
THE JUNIOR YEAR.
I have bad news. Senior year is not your child’s last year at home. Their junior year is their last year at home. Even though they will still live with you their senior year, they will never be home (see the above list of events). I consider our family to be very conservative when it comes to our children’s extra-curricular activities, meaning we do our best not to over-schedule our children, but even with a pared down activity list, our seniors were not home much their senior year. There is so much to do (again, see above), plus they want to soak up time with friends, and the bottom line is, they are gone a lot. I wish I had enjoyed the junior year more because it is the last “normal” year at home. Senior year feels like an entire year of special exceptions, so make sure you drink in the normalcy of junior year.
If we can agree that our goal as parents is to launch our high school graduate into the world, ready to spread their wings and become an adult, then their senior year needs to be when we begin to let them go. Yes, we still having oversight and the ability to step in quickly when we notice something going off track, but the major parenting should be complete by their senior year. Senior year is when the training wheels should begin to come off. Our role as parents is to let go a little bit (not completely) and watch closely for signs of wobbling while there is still time to intervene.
Of course you will still parent your senior, and there will be massive opportunities for you to speak into their life during this year, but as much as possible, let them fly. Don’t rescue them from the outcomes of their choices, continue to remind them of your expectations, consistently hold them to standards and employ consequences, but go into senior year with the mindset that you are letting the rope out in anticipation for their launch. The last thing we want is for our children to arrive at college without any sense of basic life skills. (I recorded an entire podcast episode called Lessons Before They Launch, if you’re interested.)
There is not a right or wrong way to celebrate your graduate. In our family we had three events. There was a large graduation reception, an intimate family dinner, and the actual graduation ceremony.
I chose to host the large graduation reception four to six weeks before the actual graduation ceremony, and I would choose this approach ten times out of ten. Choosing to celebrate early ensured that we could give the party our full attention, as well as reducing the chance of facing a conflicting event on the calendar. Because the reception was held early, we were able to be present later for our other children’s end-of-year events as well as attend other celebratory events that seem to pile up at the end of the year.
The intimate family dinner takes place at a very nice restaurant, and we limited the guest list to our immediate family. This dinner served as our parental toast to our senior. We shared a fancy meal, and the dinner serves as a rite of passage. We make the scope and scale of this event really special.
Our children attend public school, and our graduation ceremonies are large events held in arenas. There are hundreds of graduates and their family and friends in attendance, which creates a fun, electric environment. But it also creates a lot of logistical challenges. Quite simply, I found it difficult to create an environment of intentional connection at a large graduation ceremony.
I consider the graduation ceremony very important (obviously, this is when they actually graduate!), but I did not put all of my celebratory eggs in this basket. I wanted to attend, to cheer, to watch, to feel at ease, and to drink in the experience of seeing my senior walk across the stage, but I did not try or expect this event to house my graduate’s celebration. If I had tried to make the ceremony the main event for our family to celebrate and connect, I would have been disappointed.
The scene after the ceremony is a chaotic sea of people all trying to find their senior. Once we found our child, we snapped a few quick photos, shared a few words, and then it was over. We weren’t even all together for the photo because Norah was playing in the graduation band and wasn’t allowed to meet us after. Plus, the graduates want to go hang with their friends afterward, so it felt good to know we had already celebrated with intention long before the ceremony. The ceremony was simply the capper to a wonderful season of celebration.
As an added note, by the time I arrived to the graduation ceremony, after a year of senior-ing, and a spring of super-duper senior-ing, and a day of getting ready for the ceremony, and feeling all the feelings and attending all the things…I was exhausted. I was so grateful to have already done all of our celebrating before the ceremony so that when the ceremony was over, I could exhale and relax. Hosting a party is the last thing I would want to do on the day of or the day after the graduation ceremony. This is my perspective, and I know there are people who will feel very differently from me on this issue, but I loved our approach and plan to do it again when our other two are seniors.
This is very niche, but if you have a son who is pursuing his Eagle Scout ranking, I have one piece of advice. Make plans to do the project their sophomore year. Then, spend their junior year finishing up the post-project review process and celebrating their accomplishment. Walk into senior year with the Eagle done and let them simply enjoy campouts and attend scout meetings without the Eagle process hanging over their head.
I wish someone would have told me how grueling the Eagle Scout process would be. I know this sounds extreme, but helping Jake stay on track to earn his Eagle Scout was one of the top five hardest things I have ever done in my life, and I have done a lot of hard things in my life. I have considered writing a blog post about what I learned after Jake’s Eagle Scout experience (spoiler: I would change everything), but instead if you have questions or are the mother of a young scout who wants to become an Eagle, please reach out. If there is enough interest, I am happy to put my thoughts in a post.
I hope these notes and tips are helpful for you and your family as your children graduate or prepare to graduate. The senior year is such a special time, and as a mother, I have loved celebrating my children well along the way as they prepare to launch into the world.